Koheleth and Tolstoy

February 1, 2021

Reading “Koheleth” and Tolstoy’s “Confession” back-to-back lifts both works for me.  Both works struggle with the fact that death is coming for everyone.  Both observe constantly how the good and the wicked have random rewards in this life; both hang on to the idea of knowledge/wisdom while questioning both its extent and its usefulness.

“Koheleth” is thought to have been written over 2,000 years ago, and I am reminded now that it’s one of the least pious books in the Bible.  The author believes in God, but he spends most of his words talking about the falsehood of conventional religious notions such as how the wise prosper in this life while the foolish get their comeuppance.  The author does believe in an afterlife; he appears to have written right around the time that Judaism — and later, Jewish Christianity — affirmed a belief in the afterlife.  The Tolstoy of “Confession” is of course a Christian but belief in the afterlife is one of those things that he has the most difficult time believing.

“Confession” lifts up the earlier work for me because “Koheleth” can sometimes be dismissed as a product of someone who was writing before the idea of the afterlife was available in his faith tradition; it can be seen as the least-developed, in its faith, of all the books in the Bible. And in fact Jewish and Christians have always been ambivalent about it, despite its inclusion in the Bible.  But reading “Confession,” you’re reminded that people have always had doubts about faith and the afterlife; Tolstoy had a fully developed, pious tradition about the afterlife available to him in his faith tradition, and he tried with all his might to embrace it; but he still has doubts.  This is a problem that will always be.  As Tolstoy might put it, the infinite, even if it exists, can only be seen, understood, or felt imperfectly by finite minds and limited beings.

But it’s even more than this.  It’s not just that Tolstoy echoes Koheleth.  Of course doubt exists in all centuries.  What I mean here is how very similar the two minds are.  Separated by two thousand years, by faith tradition and by countless other changes, the two men still have nearly identical thoughts and fears about death, and nearly the same frustrations about what they observe in earthly life.

Isaiah Berlin wrote that Tolstoy was torn between, on the one hand, a desire to believe in a benevolent rule or power undergirding the world, and on the other, a personal power of observation that left him unable not to see the world in all its unconquered diversity and moral disorder.  Robert Alter, in his translation of “Qohelet”, notes how his author speaks hopefully about wisdom only to remind us in the next verse that wisdom is not consistently rewarded in the world:  “Now Qohelet swings back to the other pole of his ambivalence – one might say, from moral hopefulness, to unblinking observation.”  This footnote of Alter’s could be transferred easily and liberally to the text of “Confession.”

“Qohelet” improves “Confession,” too.  Tolstoy’s memoir can come off as merely the midlife crisis of a great writer, and it is sometimes, unfortunately, characterized that way (as if Tolstoy did not always struggle with these questions!)  But reading “Qohelet” makes clear that Tolstoy’s personal struggle is ancient, and not tied to the alienating effect of modernization, industrialization, or what-not.  Tolstoy is asking questions that have always been raised, about problems that do not and will not go away.

“Qohelet” is famous for its opening lines, in which the King James Version tells us that all is “vanity.”  Alter translates this as “merest breath”.  In King James, Qohelet had spoken of “vexation of spirit”; now all life is “herding the wind.”

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